(Check back every so often, as I’ll update posts. They are living organic posts, not one-offs)
Busking, to some, is nothing more than “glorified begging” or the “minor leagues of music”. People can assume you are an addict or homeless, or discount you as a professional. The history of busking is known only by the ordinances against it. It has been banned, had campaigns ran against it, and on the streets there are always certain peoples whose joyless lives get triggered by the spreading of artistic love. We have learned to be a tough sort. We are also fairly tightly knit. Adaptive and individualistic with a sense of community. Crows. A little salty.
If we knew nothing of title or fame, I wonder how many famous musicians could take an acoustic guitar, a mic, and an amp and set up in the middle of a crowded beach, a place you are uninvited and play for random people for tips, and do it well. In an environment where clapping is usually non-existent, unless you sequester it. It’s a nerve wracking experience for many, and I would imagine as many people try and quit it as carry through. You deal with multiple levels of security and other agencies such as the police, by-law, people high and out of their minds, and last but not least, the ever present Chad’s and Karen’s.
I came to busking because I had a problem: how do I learn to sing in an apartment when I am self conscious and have this building body of songs? I already had enough trials and pissed off neighbors when I was learning to play electric guitar in an apartment. I recorded my voice inside a few times and listened back, and I cringed. I also wanted to sing because I was opened up in university as a songwriter in a social work education project. I’ll tell you all about that in another post, but what the project did was make me realize I had better sing. I did an OK job on the vocals on the project, but I still knew that it was not enough to be a singer in a band. My voice was tentative. Off key too often. So when I decided to go out, I knew I wanted to belt it out! I needed to sing more clearly, loudly even, but I just could not bring myself to sing at open mics. Well, being in the sunny Okanagan, and trying my first busking experiences in Kelowna, it didn’t take long for me to get hooked on busking.
It worked. Not only did it work, but soon after I started busking I met Darren. He is an awesome drummer, a good guitarist with a good list of songs. We became great buds. Roommates, twice. So, another benefit to busking comes to mind now: friendship. We met a bass player and I became an open mic addict. A few shows followed. It was awesome. I was growing, expanding. Writing more songs. I had a good group of musician friends I met at open mics.
This also brings out another benefit of busking, interacting with people and people watching. You get to constantly meet all kinds of people and with that you learn many lessons. So, some Busking Rules: to be professional, learn to mitigate your reactions. Don’t leer at beautiful women, don’t bite on back-handed comments, and take things on the chin. you don’t leer. That’s bad for tips, creepy, and ultimately not what you are doing. It is overwhelming.
Then I moved from Kelowna to Penticton. It was a move for work, social work, but the depression that hit me in Penticton was so deep, I contemplated suicide again. In Kelowna I had three Augusts in a row where I stayed home inside, curtains drawn. I was drinking a lot in Kelowna, but the sucidal ideation was not as intense as in Penticton. The music/school balance kept me sane. Once I came to Penticton though, the bottom fell out: no friends, no music connections, a full time social work job. I started to make a plan to eat enough blood thinners to kill myself. I was ten years into my disability (paraplegia) and I lost all my music friends and connections. It was winter. I was working in a drab profession and I hated it. There was two of us in a office, and my co-worker was a certified nut job. She destroyed my reputation with my off-site boss. I quit, despite eight years of part time education to get where I was. I threw it all away within six months of being in Penticton. I realized I needed to get back to music. What improved my mental health? Busking, period. Busking is really just maximizing your ability to play more music longer. So when I started hitting the streets and beaches in Penticton, things began to come together just as they had in Kelowna: friends, connections, moments, events, gigs. Happiness.
I don’t approach busking as “the minor leagues” or “glorified begging”, because it’s a grind of hard work. I pack and unpack gear three times a day, and play music five days a week, 4-6 hours a day. I’m not always busking for all this time. Sometimes I’m jamming with buddies, but still, I have been doing this five days a week, 4-6 hours a day for the last three years straight! I have DEVELOPED. Busking is also the best avenue for polishing your work because not only can you polish it as you play, you can trial it to the ears of the general public. I don’t busk to learn, I busk to make happiness and money. Although I do throw down a scale choice or two on the music stand sometimes, and sometimes the joy I feel while playing so much music will allow me to take the chance to try new songs, so I am slightly contradicting myself.
The money is incidental. That is because it is reliable for me. I think buskers should practice in their bedrooms, open mics, then get your set list together, and finally you hit the street. This is the Introvert Method. Extroverts, well…go for it, but your tips will suck so bad that you will contemplate Introversion Therapy. Don’t go out half formed, go out three quarters formed with the idea of kicking ass for tips. I did this.
Busking is the most flexible profession. You can do it anywhere, at any time. You do not need oodles of people to make good money. You just need a good flow, and some sit down locations. You can count on what you are going to make in a day. It is predictable. I can plan it around other needs and activities like running errands or going to busk in a particular neighbourhood so I can see a certain friend. You play for nature, not dumb drunks on a bar stool yelling “Play Led Zeppelin!”. I play for God, Gaia, The Great Mystery. I mean it. I play for Kits Beach sunsets, for birds chirping in harmony to your music. Birds even giving you solo ideas. I am not kidding. Birds will chirp in 6ths, root notes, and I think I heard a 5th in a crow.
Let’s get back to the human element. You get to watch people all day, always a lovely profession. I have seen so many unbelievable things happen, in happy ways. I keep timing with my head sometimes because I am unable to use my feet to tap tempo because of my paralysis. So kids see this head bobbing and then start imitating me. Then parents are desperately digging out their cell phones to capture the moment. I feel so much pride. I felt like I was temporarily a member of the family! Another great kid story. I was busking in Holland Park in Surrey and playing a song called Oh Emma. When this young boy heard the music he did this head bob dance, but with his arms and legs working in perfection with the music. He looked like how the music sounded: fun, upbeat, crazy. I just can’t describe it to you. He was the music through dance. I have had two people who were tending to the life threatening cancer of their partner tell me they finally had some joy in their life during their trying times. So many people have told me “you made my day” that I have lost count. This is one of a FRACTION of “special moments”. You think this is “glorified begging” or “minor league music” now?
I have met amazing people. The Kits crowd alone is only one neighbourhood in Vancouver that I busk in, so each neighbourhood will have it’s cool folks you get to meet over and over again. These are beautiful people. I don’t drop names like some kinda star chaser, but some of these people are doing very well in the creative industries, and I find that no matter how much fame they have claimed, they are just normal people like everyone else. I like the street guys I meet, most of the time, and I have met all kinds of tech business folk, creatives, They tell me cool stories. A Juno award winner tells me about the dark underbelly in the music industry in Vancouver. I get to meet the stage manager for Elvis Costello, and his jaw dropped at my playing. It’s all too crazy, but every one of these connections happens because I busk. I met Harman, formerly of the CBC, and he did a mini doc on me. I’m not bragging here. I’m just conveying to you how awesome it is when you put yourself out there and you don’t do it to climb the ladder, but to uplift the people.
Busking, however, I would say, is not for the faint of heart. You have to deal with tripping addicts. Homelessness directly. You see all walks and all kinds all the time. You learn not to do what I used to do: act like the aggressive little dog to scare them off. You win them over. You be kind. Other people I have met while busking, Phil Watts, JF, and Ryan Trevlon come to mind. These are beautiful souls in an imperfect world, teaching me the hard lessons they have learned.
Busking also teaches you the baseline (not the bassline lol) for getting paid in a venue. It establishes a minimum. This is a complex topic. Negotiations with venues and business associations are sometimes possible, sometimes inflexible. The recommended wage, according to the artists union for a musician is $315 for (I think) three hours time. That’s not what you get at all venues though. I had to work my ass off for venue gigs at the now defunct Fairview Pub to just get the door receipts and have to split them five ways, leaving me with 70 dollars for probably 10 hours work, if we include rehearsing, moving gear, set up, tear down, etc. Do you think that if I make 40-60 dollars an hour busking that I am going to go to a venue to give them free music? Sure, if it’s a coffee shop, a small restaurant, etc., no one is going to want to gouge the business. Tips in the venue do compensate, as does merchandise, for poor payment. Still though, busking does provide you with some ammo to get paid a fair wage.
As I was mentioning, this will end up being an organic post. So do check back, and maybe I’ll add some more things to this. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I ask of you that you subscribe to my newsletter to keep in touch with me. I have left social media. I am going to look at options for getting more hosting space so I can house some video on my site.
Keep on Diggin!